(This was written during a tudong walk I was doing in the spring of 2009)
Just as the willingness to both give and receive is a mark of any sound human relationship, the giving and receiving of alms ( free-will offering of material support) has always been a part of most cultures. It centres people around kindness and humility and reminds us that although we are all subject to the changeable fortune of the world, our values and relatedness can remain constant. For this reason, alms-round ( ‘pindapada‘= ‘scrap-gathering’) is the heart of the livelihood of a Buddhist monastic (or ‘samana‘). We are alms-people, not ‘monks’ or ‘nuns’, and certainly not priests. To rely for sustenance on what arises through bringing one’s presence as a Gone Forth person into the market place takes trust in humanity. In fact just being in the market place and yet not a part of it entails the faith that the disturbance of one’s presence will generate some positive ripples. So alms-rounds set a lot of nerve endings twitching – for both the samana and the townsfolk. Maybe out of what turns up, one’s needs will be met. And if not, then through being open and upright, one’s mind will at least be clear, undistracted and free from craving. Because when you practise this, any craving for food, or even to get away from the public gaze, stands out so starkly as the creator of suffering and stress that you have to let it go. Instead you just maintain presence.
A lot of the time in modern monasticism, the edge is taken off the alms-faring by living in a monastery where food is almost certainly guaranteed to be given by its supporters, and where food is often stored up by lay attendants living in the monastery. (And thank you all very much.) This means that with not having to walk to the town, spend an hour or so on an alms-round, and then walk back again, there’s more time to do other things – meditate, teach, manage the place, have meetings, etc. So faring out for alms frequently gets put aside. However in terms of the ‘tudong‘, the long-distance unccompanied walk that I’m currently in the middle of, the alms-round is frequently the only way I’ll get food for the day.
On some days it’s the case that I’ve been hosted by supporters…but on others the routine is to wake up in my tent at dawn, meditate to gather my energies for an hour or two, brew up a hot drink to get the cold out of, and the energy into, my body…Then break camp, stuff everything into a backpack and walk the few miles to the nearest town. It can be a slow walk, partially because the pack is heavy and the body is empty, and partly because there’s no point in getting to the town much before 11am as the majority of shoppers who may provide me with food won’t be heading for the shops until around that time.
Eventually I find a street with some shops in it, and a spot near a food outlet, a supermarket or bakers. According to the training, one should not intrude in the human flow of the street; one should not solicit alms by any gesture or speech or eye-contact and one should hold one’s alms-bowl ‘well-covered.’ In other words, one should not beg, but merely be available for those who are inspired enough by what one represents to wish to offer food. This is all quite appropriate in a country where people know what a shaven-headed person in brown robes carrying a bowl is about. In England, the first thought that regularly comes to mind as I tuck myself back from the main flow of the street and haul my bowl out of my backpack, is that there is no way that this is going to work. No-one knows who I am, no-one knows what I’m doing – and even if they did, why should these hardworking townsfolk pause in the flurry and bustle of the street and getting their shopping done to offer me anything? Yet, here I am with no other way of obtaining the food to get me through the next 23 hours and the next twelve miles of walking. So this is a great ‘out of the bubble’ occasion, a time when I can’t do my thing and go my way at my pace; I can’t demonstrate wisdom or give an inspiring talk, I have to just be here, conspicuous but impotent. Ah well.
I settle into standing. Walking up and down looks suspicious, and standing presents who I am in a clear and simple way. I stand in my boots, trying to relax my stiff legs and sore feet, and look on with a soft focus. It’s easy to feel compassion for all these people hurrying to manage their lives, thronging past in the ongoing human comedy. It’s a 21st century version of Breugel: mothers trying to steer their children ( some of whom are asking who that funny man is); teenagers with their iPods inserted; men making deliveries; styles of dress, of gait, of manner; dogs doing embarassing doggy things. Everyone is busy going somewhere, getting something done, making purchases. Everyone except me. Thirty, forty minutes pass by; occasionally someone makes a friendly remark, but for most it seems I’m not on their screen. And yet…in the course of this last month, I’ve been prayed over, joked with, engaged with in inquiries about the Dalai Lama, and yes, greeted with curious joy and given food. Or rather the robes and bowl have triggered off a range of responses, as surely they were meant to do. However and whoever I am, I’m a break in the pattern, a snag in the flow of the daily human business – and that moves minds. I find all this deeply engaging and very much a space to drop into. It’s both intimate and anonymous, discreet and revealing at the same time. Interesting to sense what it brings up. It’s a real bubble breaker; it tips me out of my self-involved world…And others too.
Here’s one story of how an alms-round affects the human world. It’s set in a shopping mall in a small town near Bristol. At first, the arcade looked like the prime place for an alms-mendicant: a tide of people moving along the spacious pavements between several major supermarkets. Plenty of space to tuck away in a corner without bothering anyone. So, suitably parked near a shop, I stand and let a half-hour wash over me. Then a woman stops and asks me if I went to school with a friend of hers called Deirdre – I say ‘No,’ so she says: ‘I’ll get you some food then’ and ducks inside the supermarket. It’s like that: the donors often express no spiritual inclinations or interest, but somehow dare to break through the membrane that forms around strangers in the street. Once even a minimal human contact is made, they inexplicably dive into a nearby store, or ask what they can get me. Slightly bemused I await this woman’s return – but then along comes a man in a uniform. ‘Do you realize that it’s against the law to collect money in this area?’
‘I’m not collecting money. I’m standing for alms-food.’
‘Do you realize that it’s against the law to collect food in this area?’
‘No, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m a monk and have no wish to transgress the laws of the land or cause problems in any way.’
(He softens a tad.) ‘Well, I’ll have to ask you to move on. This precinct is privately owned.’
He is a security guard, and this area of town, like many in Britain, has been bought by a property developer and turned into a shopping mall over which they have rights of access – and the right to evict anyone considered ‘unsuitable’ (i.e. not shopping). Naturally I agree to move but as I’m packing, I ask him how his day is and whether he has to deal with many problems on the street. He softens a little more and talks about his day. Nothing much happens – a kid on drugs yesterday was the event of the week. What a job. I notice he has studs in his ears and try to imagine his life outside his uniform. He is quite young and has a local accent; probably grew up in this town. He asks me what I’m doing in a genuinely interested way, and I talk about how I’ve walked up from Sussex and am heading towards Wales. He takes all this in, along with the robes, and seems receptive. Could he recommend a place where standing for alms would be permitted? (I’m starting to worry about the woman in the shop – what if she emerges to find me gone?) He recommends the High Street, then pauses, thinks again and mentions another large supermarket nearby – but outside of this arcade. Just then my donor turns up, plonks a sandwich and some fruit into my bowl with a brief ‘Here you are then!’ and scurries off. The security man grins: ‘Well that’s helped you on your way for today!’ he says. Then he helps me get my pack on my back and we part company amicably.
Outside the other supermarket the show is much the same. Someone stops by and talks to me about his visit to Nepal, Tibetan tea and how hospitable and cheerful the monks had been. ‘You’ve made my day!’ he exclaims as he hurries off. Well that offering, although immaterial, is something. I’m starting to feel happy at being around: that the sign of a samana can be a source of uplift in the world. Maybe one sandwich and a banana is enough for the day. Then a woman hastily pops a small pack of tomatoes in my bowl. Perhaps that is enough…Anyway I move further away as I might possibly be too near the entrance to the store – and as I do so, right on cue, the manager appears.
‘Excuse me – some of the customers have commented on your standing here, and apparently collecting…This area does belong to (…) and I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to move along.’
‘Fair enough. I have no wish to cause a disturbance.’ Suddenly feeling like a bum or a drunk panhandling for coins, I stuff my bowl in my pack… but as the manager walks away, an elderly woman stops in front of me: ‘You are a monk! Can I get you some food? I’m a Christian, what can I get you to eat?’
I mention maybe something small will do just fine, but she interjects: ‘No, no, they make hot food in here, I’d like to buy you a proper meal.’ So, with her late teens’ daughter shouldering my pack, we march in to the cafeteria area of the supermarket that I’ve just been shooed away from. The ripple effect is palpable. Large, bald, robed being striding down the aisle following two women, one of whom is carrying a bulky backpack. The servers behind the counter give me guarded looks, but make no comments as I order up a breakfast and take a seat.
My sponsor explains she is a lapsed Catholic. ‘Everytime I went to church I would just weep and weep. So I stopped going. Now I sit at home, let my eyes rest in the middle distance and empty my mind. This is my way of praying.’ I commend her on her meditation…’But I have a problem with devotion. I suppose I need to find other people to pray with.’ An engaging conversation ensues. I refuse more food (I still have the sandwich to complete the meal) and give her a list of contact addresses that might help. Suddenly she’s off. Then her daughter re-appears with bags of nuts and dried fruit, offers them with a smile and, like her mother, hastens off.
I don’t need this extra food. I can’t store it. What to do? Meanwhile wondering if I have been a nuisance to the store, and feeling unhappy about the contact I had with the manager, I decide to seek him out and explain things. It seems like the proper thing to do. So I head for customers’ enquiries.
‘I’d like to speak to the manager, please.’
They phone him up. ‘He’s busy right now, can you wait ten minutes?’
Eventually he comes bustling along.
‘Hello. The last time we met I was standing outside your store, and I’d just like to apologize if I was causing any disturbance to your customers. That was not my intention. Why I’m in here is because shortly after you left me, a woman came along and invited me in to have a meal. As it happened, her daughter also offered me some food, which I don’t need and am not allowed to keep, so I’d like to offer it as a gesture of apology.’
He didn’t blink, but seemed to be regaining his breath.
‘You see, I’m a monk, and I live on alms food. I’m not allowed to ask for anything directly or even make a sign. I’m supposed to stand in a way that doesn’t interrupt whatever’s going on…but still some people, one in two hundred, see me and feel inspired to offer me food. Actually your store has made out of my standing outside it.’
The manager found some breath and sighed: ‘I feel really crestfallen. I should have asked further what you were doing and given you a chance instead of jumping to conclusions.’
I say I sympathize with his situation and that he has to care for the effective running of his store ( ‘Nice store you have here, by the way’) and that some his customers might find people like me a bit disturbing. He appreciates it that I can see his point of view… and we get to talking…
‘I’m really grateful that you’ve taken the time to come back and explain this to me,’ he says. ‘I could never do what you’re doing,'( we’re on first-name terms now) but next time you or any of your fellows are coming through, phone and let me know and I’ll arrange it so that you can collect food.’
Much hand shaking and so we part.
Humans! Sometimes all this practice is about is getting people to come out of their roles and programs for a moment and trust being human. It’s an awkward, nervy kind of process, but this alms-mendicant sign is meant to instigate just that. Come to think of it, I’m supposed to be a disturbance.
After I’ve eaten, I find I still have the small pack of tomatoes. On the way out of town, I try giving it away. After two sets of people have reeled back in shock at being approached by a robed man with backpack bearing down on them proffering tomatoes, I find an old people’s nursing home and hang them on the railings of the front gate. There the bag dangles, suspect emissary from a human world, until someone dares to peek inside it.